Politics and business first, education second

I asked 50 out-of-state school administrators if they agreed with a local superintendent who said he was first a politician, second a businessman, and third an educator. Half the participants agreed, and almost all of the them are superintendents.

The very idea disgusts most people. Some of the superintendents said an administrator who talks like that needs to find another way to make a living. They said being an educator comes before all else.

Almost all superintendents, in fact, are educators before they go into administration, but the duties of the head educator of a school district are determined by the behaviors and demands of the community they serve. Parents can be extremely political and so can administration and teachers.

Administrators who said they are first politicians explained that it’s simply the nature of their job, not something they aspire to. Even classroom teachers learn that politics with parents, staff and the central office can dominate their time.

Some of the superintendents said their job requires them to be a business person first and a politician second, which still puts educator in third. Whether participants ranked business person and politician first or second, they did not mean they lost sight of the central goal of learning. They were objectively describing how their time is taken up by issues that are pushed into priority.

Let’s say middle-school students are tearing up desks and library shelves. A superintendent may oversee an urgent investigation into when the vandalism is happening, who is involved, and which staff are or are not present when it happens. A solution might be sought in a meeting with district educators who have a good record of maintaining order on their watch.

In the meantime, as the names of the vandals become known to staff and some parents, those parents may become excessively agitated and start a fight with other parents or school officials. There are so many ridiculous examples of this, and sometimes the school officials will back down, which is foolish, cowardly and truly political. They do need to find another way to make a living, because they don’t contribute to the integrity and stability of the school environment.

But even a good leader will spend many hours, days and weeks to methodically break a problem down and oversee a solution, which in the present case can involve teamwork with parents and security officers. Some slight shifts in the teachers’ routines may be necessary for a while, but good leaders do not mess with good teachers’ routines without proving they have exceptional reasons.

Handling all these logistics and personalities will keep a superintendent mighty busy, and this is only one of literally a thousand matters that surface during a school year. It doesn’t mean the central office doesn’t care about learning. It’s just that the school community itself introduces the demands that fall on the district chief.

The superintendents who told me the chief’s first job is to be an educator might have been idealistic. Principals and teachers can usually make learning their first duty, but superintendents have to be concerned about a bigger picture that’s loaded with helpings of exactly what principals and teachers want less of.

I didn’t like what I heard when the local superintendent said he was first a politician and second a businessman, but he was right. Superintendents can think of themselves as educators first if they want, but rarely will a school community let them serve in that role above the other two — and there are many more hats that the superintendent wears.

Max T. Russell of New Palestine writes for the international business intelligence community. You can contact him via his website, maxtrussell.com or send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.